Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Twenty Wives, O My!

I'm on an Eastern kick lately. Maybe I got tired of all these books on Henry VIII and other British novels. Really, what's the fascination with Henry's wives?? It's ridiculous! Furthermore, I can't read a story revolving around a monarch I detest. There are actually few monarchs I like but Henry VIII is so far off my chart, he's in the despicable category.

Anyways, The Twenthieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan, is set in seventeenth-century Mughal India. In fact, this story immediately precedes the story in Beneath a Marble Sky, by John Shors. I thought this would be a love story of an emperor and it was....but the marriage takes place at the end of the novel. There's not much love in this book but there is a lot of history.

Mehrunnisa, our heroine, falls in love at an early age to Prince Salim, son of Emperor Akbar. When it comes time for her to marry, she is sent off, at the emperor's request, to be the wife of a lowly soldier. Her dreams shattered, she endures her marriage to an unintelligent oaf of a man. The one good thing to come out of her marriage is a daughter, Ladli. Meanwhile, there are assassination attempts and plots, rebellions, and wars going on throughout the empire.

Her husband, after ten years of marriage, dies a traitor and Mehrunnisa comes home to the royal harem and the "dowager" empress, who took a liking to her as a child. Eventually, Prince Salim, now emperor and called Jahangir, courts her and they marry. Mehrunnisa's neice, Mumtaz Mahal, marries Salim's son, Shah Jahan, who later builds the Taj Mahal in her honor. It seems that Mehrunissa's family had a way of charming the emperors.

The problem with this book is the characters. Mehrunnisa has no concept of humility and even when she is "suffering" she has more than the common person. Her sense of entitlement is annoying. And Jahangir....well, he seemed to be a bit of a wimp and I have no respect for wimpy men, especially those who are monarchs.

This was a good read but definitely not on par with Beneath the Marble Sky.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Italian Cats

This is my last Italy post and I wanted to do something fun. At some point along the trip, I started taking pics of all the random cats we ran into. I saw very few in Rome but there were tons of outdoor kitties in Umbria. And they were too cute. Above, one catnaps in Assisi as the crowds pass by. Just a beautiful girl!

In Spoleto, we were hanging out at the city fountain, waiting for our restaurant of choice to open, when this kitten wandered into the busy town square. Several of the old men around the fountain tried to shoo it away, to keep it safe, but the kitten kept coming back. At one point, a teenage kitty started attacking this poor thing! We had to fend off the older cat and we eventually found a crate that this kitten was living out of. It was very stressful watching such a tiny creature fend for itself!!

Another cat in Spoleto, sitting by the city fountain. She didn't seem to know the above kitten.

A cat wanders amidst the ancient Etruscan temples at Largo Argentina in Rome. The last time I was in Rome, this place was filled with cats. Now, there was only this one.

Look closely.... This cat sat perched in a window of what used to be the Roman amphitheater in Spoleto. We were afraid she'd try to jump down but she didn't.

We encountered this lonely kitty on the walk home from the Spoleto train station.

And finally, lest I be called discriminatory, here's a dog we saw in Assisi. I felt bad for the dogs as there was very little grass in the city centers of these towns.

That's about it from Italy. Next week, you'll hear about my rather boring life here in Texas.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bella Italia!

Unlike Texas, which is now drying up and browning in the 100-degree heat, Italy is blossoming with all kinds of beautiful foliage. I thought I'd show you some of the beautiful plants and flowers I saw. Above: there were grapes - grapes!! - growing amidst the ruins at Ostia Antica! Crazy!

We saw some fragrant lavender at the fortress in Spoleto, to which all the butterflies were attracted!

Unless I'm completely wrong, these were cherries growing at the theatre in Spoleto - just too cool!

And oleander! I'd never seen oleander but there was tons of it in Itlay - in all kinds of shades and colors. So beautiful!

I can't remember what this was, growing over a shop on a busy Assisi street, but it was charming. There were so many beautiful plants overflowing from pots in Assisi, decorating windows and entries. I wish more Americans took the time to beautify their house. It makes for a charming street!

As my pics are drawing to a close, I'll have one last post tomorrow - of cats! I hope this one will make you laugh.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Randomness from Italy

Now, back to Italy. Here are some random shots that I thought you might enjoy. Above, an ancient Roman mosaic from the National Museum of Rome at the Palazzo Massimo. I love the cat; she reminds me of Sookie, our fearless hunter kitty! (Cats are the subject of my Friday post, so stay tuned!)

While wandering around the church of S. Rocco in Rome, we came upon this dog who was asleep, and practically dead to the world. (This one is for AL!) It was quite interesting to venture into all these churches and to see how many people milled about, took pictures, or prayed.

I love this shot. We went up to the fortress in Spoleto but still couldn't see the famous bridge below. While descending from the town's stronghold, I almost tried to scale the walls, I was so desperate for a view. Finally, I peered through the slits in the walls - for the archers - and got this shot. Thankfully those medieval builders were very strategic in their defensive architecture!

Mom and I searched and searched for the Roman amphitheater in Spoleto until we figured out it no longer really existed - houses had been built on top of it, like many other amphitheaters, in the Middle Ages. The only thing left of it is the outer city wall and the curve within it. Judging from all the graffiti, this is where the local youths hang out at night.

Our last view of Spoleto, seen from the train bound for Rome. We climbed all the way up to the fortress!! I think, just maybe, all the walking helped balance out all the gelato.

And what flavors of gelato were consumed? Well, let's see.... Stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate chunks, my absolute favorite by far!), strawberry, lemon cream, mango, milk chocolate, mint chocolate, strawberry yogurt, yogurt... I really meant to try the pistachio but ran out of time. I guess I'll have to go back!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Girl from Junchow

I know I said to expect pictures of Italy this week, but I wanted to write this before I forgot anything important! I bought The Concubine's Secret, by Kate Furnivall, in the Rome airport to read on the ten hour flight home. It's the sequal to Furnivall's action-packed The Russian Concubine. When I got home, I learned that the book I had bought is selling under a different title in the US: The Girl from Junchow.

Furnivall has picked up Lydia's story where she left off... Lydia has left 1930s China with two companions in search of the father she believed to be dead. In reality, her father has been a Russian prisoner for ten years, held by Stalin for his engineering abilities. He has been forced to create a weapon that would kill thousands.

Meanwhile, Lydia's love, Chang An Lo, fights for a Communist China. Lydia has lost her mother and left behind her love; her pain is great but she is hopeful for her father. The search for him is dangerous and no one is left untouched by Stalin's merclessness.

Furnivall keeps the action flowing at a reasonable speed and, truthfully, I read for probably six hours of our flight. I had only a few pages left and I finished those last night. I have no idea why Furnivall is so focused on 1930s Communist countries as they're not exactly romantic settings. Her The Red Scarf was brutal in its descriptions of labor camps. But I will keep reading because her strong, intelligent female leads are a delight.

I get amused at bookseller's attempts to sell "summer reads" - which they say should be light and fluffy. Furnivall is not light nor fluffy. After reading her, though, you will have a newfound respect for the human spirit.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I'm home from Italy and given the lack of blogging material, you'll be seeing more pics from the trip in the week to come. It was a great trip - a tiring trip - but I saw (and ate!) so much. Mom and I went to Assisi during our sojourn in quiet Spoleto and it was just as beautiful as I remember - and more crowded!

The flowers were in bloom - oleander, geraniums, roses - making the steep streets gorgeous!

Of course, part of the charm of Assisi is the view of the valley below. The old part of Assisi is perched on the side of a hill, three miles from the train station in the town below. I was super proud of Mom and I for figuring out and taking the bus (totaling all of 3.80 euros) instead of an expensive taxi. We were quite the frugal travelers!

The attraction of Assisi - the reason pilgrims crowd the streets - is, of course, St. Francis. The basilica built to house his remains would appall him (he was such a simple man) but this was how the Church chose to honor him - a man who breathed new life into a struggling, corrupt institution in the Middle Ages. It's ironic that this basilica, in Assisi, is the only property owned by the Vatican outside of Vatican City.

I've never seen so many pilgrims - and tourists - as there were at Assisi that day. The last time I was there, it was a quiet, sleepy town. It seems, however, that Assisi is now in vogue in Italy. There are more religious souvenir shops than ever before.

It saddens me to see the first friar turned into a money-making machine. Everyone wants a part of this man - or, at least, everyone wants to be able to say they've been to Assisi.

Anyways, mom and I visited almost every church in the city and we walked our legs off! Then, once were again in the town below, we walked from the train station to S. Maria degli Angeli - the church that houses the church Francis rebuilt, and the place he called home. This place is almost more moving than the great basilica. To step inside Francis' church is always a humbling, thought-provoking experience.

And that was our day in Assisi.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Spoleto Sights

My mom and I are now in Umbria- Spoleto to be exact - with limited internet, so this will be a short post. Spoleto is built on a hill and the other day we decided to make our way to the top of that hill, where a fort sits majestically perched above the town. There were a lot of steps. Picturesque to be sure, but tiring as well!!

Half-way up our climb, we stopped at the Duomo - or cathedral of the city. Very beautiful!!

The views, once we got to the fort, were amazing. The entire Umbrian valley was sprawled below us!

And here's the fort - built first in the Carolingian age as a strategic defensive position for Rome - and then rebuilt later on by a pope in the Middle Ages. Spoleto held off many invaders who had their sights set upon Rome! And the area was inhabited as early as the Bronze age. Yay, Etruscans!

The medieval Ponte della Torri. The woods across the ponte were held to be sacred by pagan Romans and Christian Romans. This is where Michelangelo escaped to think when the pope became overbearing in his demands. Amazing.

I'm a bit rushed but will try to post more when I get home. Our trip is quickly coming to an end and we leave Italy on Saturday!! More later, I promise!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ostia Antica

Sunday was Ostia Antica day and boy was it a day! A long, hot, interesting day in Rome's old port town. A scholar from UT (Austin) has been excavating at a synagogue found in the city, and he gave a group of us a very nice tour of the town. Above, one of the many beautiful mosaics that's survived two thousand years.

Here, you can imagine a road lined with shops. Above the shops, apartments. Apparently the upper apartments were the cheapest...and the hottest.

Doniamarie amidst the ruins.

The Capitoline temple was huge and built for the patron gods of Rome: Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva (I think). A very impressive sight!

A public latrine. Beneath the toilets was a steady stream of flowing water. Those Romans were very inventive.

My first poppy sighting, growing in an old Roman wall!!

This mosaic is from one of Ostia's baths (sorry, I can't remember which one!). Just amazing!

And here is what our UT guy (Michael White) has been working on - the synagogue. The only way to tell it's a synagoge is the menorah (look closely!). How incredible is that?!

One of our lasts stops was what I was waiting for: the mithraeum. Though Ostia has fifteen of these temples dedicated to Mithras, this was the only one we got to see (most are not open to the public). This mithraeum was beneath a bath complex and has this incredible statue of Mithras slaying a bull.

Yet another amazing mosaic. I love the swimmers!

I've never walked so much in my life as I did at Ostia but it was worth it. Just incredible! And only 1/3 of the town has been excavated!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Vatican

I'm sorry I didn't get around the writing Friday, but it was a crazy day. My mom got into Rome on Thursday night and it was not an easy trip and not easy finding her. It was actually quite traumatic for both of us! BUT. The next morning we headed to the Vatican and spent all day there. Above is the Baldacchino in St. Peter's beneath the magnificent dome.

We got there around 9am and the sun was streaming into the windows at the front of the church. Just spectacular!!

Somehow we beat the hordes of tour groups and it was so nice having a somewhat quiet experience in the great basilica.

Here we are in St. Peter's Square.

We spent all afternoon at the Vatican Museums. The place is so very overwhelming. Above, an Egyptian cat in the courtyard.

The building and their decorations are just as fascinating as the art housed within them! These decorations were similar to the ones we saw in the Raphael Loggia. (And yes, we scoped out the secret door we went through to get to the Raphael Loggia!)

The dome of St. Peter's from somewhere within the maze of the Museum.

And finally, those awesome winding stairs at the exit of the Museum.

In the morning we also got to go on our Scavi tour beneath the Vatican. It was the most amazing thing! There were pagan mausoleums down there dating from the second century A.D. that looked like houses where entire families were laid to rest. One was even a Christian family! And then, beneath the altar of St. Peter's, we saw the lone remaining column of what is believed to be Peter's tomb.

If you go to the Vatican, you must jump through all the hoops it takes to go on a Scavi tour. It's a priceless experience.

And we saw John Paul II's tomb, a very modest monument for such a great man. It was quite a day!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Random Rome

Yesterday was a bit unexciting compared to some of our earlier days and I just don't have the energy to post more church pics. So, instead, you're getting some randomness from Rome. Above is a beautiful building on the Palatine. I have no idea what it is, but it was pretty!

The Arch of Janus in the Forum Boarium. On the walk back up to the Capitoline we saw a policeman directing traffic. When a man tried to turn right when the rest of his traffic was stopped the policeman threw a fit, blowing his whistle and telling him to back-up. It was hilarious! To see Romans being chastised for their horrific driving! Ha! We think traffic was stopped for some bishops - at least I saw some bishops in the ensuing motorcade.

At the Capitoline Museums, the famous she-wolf of Rome, suckling Romulus and Remus. She-wolf in Latin, of course, was another name for whore.

When we exited the Pantheon, we saw two horses being fed. They were so beautiful!

The water in Rome is really great and it's so nice to be able to fill up the water bottle at any public fountain. Here, we did so at the Borghese Gallery. Just afterwards, a lab puppy jumped in the fountain and took a bath! My boss caught that on film and I'll have to get the pics for AL. So very cute!!